Problematic Pagan Leaders: a search for the next generation of BNPs
Kenny Klein was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for multiple counts of possession of child porn. Klein has been a public Pagan presence for decades, publishing books, performing music, and teaching his brand of Wicca around the country. His influence in our community is undeniable, and so is the fact that his arrest, trial, and conviction have rocked our community. Klein's recent sentencing left me wondering about the state of Pagan leadership, of publicly Pagan voices who are willing to make this community's betterment their life's work. It's also left me wondering about badly behaving Pagan leaders...and just how long our community is going to tolerate them.
When news of Klein's sentencing first came out, I spent time in the following days reviewing the articles written about his initial arrest. As I said on the recent episode of my podcastrecent episode of my podcast, the article I wrote about Klein's arrest is the most read article I've ever written on this blog. It also carries the distinction of being the most commented. In the three years since Klein's arrest, dozens of people have come forward to publicly or anonymously consign to the idea that Klein's behavior was at least suspected - and some fear it may have been known - by the community; by festival organizers, venue owners, promoters of all sorts, and attendees.
What might shock many is that this kind of behavior could be known, or suspected, and nothing be done about it. That dozens and dozens of people could come forward in recent years stating what they knew or what they personally experienced in relation to Klein's proclivities and it took a police raid to stop him. Predators go years without ever getting caught by authorities. Some never do. That's not because they're especially good at hiding their crimes; it's because people are afraid to step forward, or afraid to accuse someone of something so heinous and then be wrong. I don't necessarily fault someone for having those kinds of fears. I have never been in a situation where I was faced with accusing a personal of child sexual assault. That's the kind of thing that haunts a person, even if the accusation is proved false. Google is not very forgiving in the aftermath of such charges.
A Pagan Wall of Silence
Klein's conviction, however, exists on a spectrum of bad behavior that is tolerated by our community. In the sentencing hearing for the Wiccan priest, the judge stated that he had an almost equal number of people writing to support Klein as wrote in to condemn him. We protect our own, our Pagan community does. It put me in mind of what is known as the "Blue Curtain" - otherwise known as the "blue wall of silence" or "blue code" or "blue shield". It's a concept that I learned about in Criminology 101. It's the idea that police go to great lengths to keep from reporting bad, often criminal, behavior when the act is committed by a fellow police officer.
The blue wall of silence exists, because police feel that their experience as police officers binds them to a community of men and women who will never be understood by most. That the actions and decisions they must make on a daily basis gives them a unique worldview that allows their misconduct to be viewed through the context of "being a police officer". Most citizens, when asked, if they looked at much of police misconduct - and this is seen time and again when cases of police brutality arise - have a range of views about whether police actions are illegal or simply existing under an intersecting group of circumstances us mere citizens could not possibly understand. (In case you care, I exist in the former category.)
Pagans have their own wall of silence. Pagans are a small group. According to the best data - the US Census - that we have on the matter, we comprise approximately 0.03% of the United States population. There aren't many of us. And the folks that could be considered Pagan celebrities are an even smaller group. They are a handful of living authors and musicians and community leaders that chooose to make their living, in whole or in part, from service to our small but mighty group.
Defining Pagan Leadership
What does it take to be a Pagan leader? Honestly, I'm not sure. Visibility is certainly one requirement. People should know who you are. Performing some kind of service, whether it's teaching classes or running a magazine or furthering legislation, is also probably up there in criteria. Identifying yourself as being under the Pagan umbrella is probably important. Beyond that...I don't know. Being a Pagan leader, defining what that role looks like, is only slightly less vague than defining what being "Pagan" actually means.
Can you be a Pagan leader and not think of yourself as being a Pagan leader? Sure, if the criteria fit. Are you a visible, influential voice in the Pagan community? Do people listen to what you say on some kind of public scale? Well, my dude, you're probably a Pagan leader. As such, what you say, where you say it, and how you say it matters. Not only does it matter to the curious muggle who might be doing a cursory search on Paganism and come across your blog post or podcast episode or YouTube video or local radio/tv interview, but it matters to the folks inside the community as well looking to you for guidance in how to navigate their magical lives.
Bad Behavior on a Spectrum
Pagan leader misconduct is not relegated to criminal acts of universally acknowledged deplorable behavior like Klein. As I've stated before, it exists on a spectrum - as does all human behavior. Dorothy Morrison got into some hot water this past year with a series of posts on social media that many read as tone deaf when it came to issues regarding people of color. Folks like Z. Budapest and Christian Day seem to not go a calendar year without some kind of public statement or action that either belittles a marginalized group or actively victimizes an already marginalized group. Budapest became quite famous in recent years for her adversarial, transphobic comments and exclusionary rules surrounding her classes at Pantheacon. She has also made numerous homophobic statements over the years, well documented in her own blogs. Christian Day, consummate narcissist and self promoter, has gone from the embarrassing - the infamous Charlie Sheen curse - to the depraved - a 2014 rant in which he joked about hoping that a woman got raped and screamed his name during the act.
Our community is rife with problematic leaders, as many communities are. From Wiccan founder Gerald Gardner to the Ferrars to Anton LeVay to the Llewellyn darling Scott Cunningham, we are quite forgiving when it comes to either rumors of misconduct or outright bad behavior on public display. And that is to be understood. That is nothing new. Most communities have problematic leaders, especially in retrospect. As society and ideologies evolve, we tend to embrace inclusivity and deride outdated mores that do not serve current morality. We overlook Gardner's homophobia or relegate it to the context of time and place. And...fine.
In lieu of good options we seem to be perfectly content with "problematic but at least they exist". Nobody else is applying for the job, so let's keep rehiring the same old faces, and I'm not sure I'm ok with that standard anymore.
The Next BNP Generation
As we go forward as a community, I wonder how many leaders we are going to have to excuse. How many more Kenny Klein's are supported by our community, despite those in the know at least suspecting criminality, for want of a Pagan celebrity? How many festival organizers or Pagan conventions have hired problematic Pagan leaders, because they knew they could draw in more numbers than a more obscure or new voice with less of a following? How many shop owners get begrudging Pagan dollars, despite the rhetoric of the owner, because there aren't that many brick and mortar Pagan shops?
The truth is there aren't a lot of Pagan dollars to go around. Being a small community means that there is only so far that our reach can extend. Events geared towards our community need a name to attach if they even have a prayer of getting enough attendance and entry fees to make the event worth holding. The economics of problematic Pagan leadership is likely the most concerning and the most likely way of correcting the issue going forward. Festivals need money and attendance in order to exist, and bringing on a big name helps with that, but with that Big Name Pagan can come a host of intersectionally problematic issues.
Not many new voices are being added to the Big Name Pagan roster. How many authors in the last decade have achieved the same heights of the Silver Ravenwolfs or the Scott Cunninghams of the 90s? How many public Pagan commentators have garnered as much attention as Christian Day can with one Charlie Sheen video?
If we want quality Pagan leaders that work to uplift the community, then we need to support them. We need to be on the lookout for the next Selena Fox, founder of Circle Sanctuary and one of the main reasons why Pagan soldiers can now have the Pentacle on their tombstone. We need to give our time and attention and workspace and teaching slots and author contracts and podcast subscriptions and blog clicks to folks who are making positive change. We need to make being a Pagan leader a much more attractive job opportunity if we want the next generation of Pagan leadership to be one which we are proud to claim. I want more TV spots focusing on people like David Salisbury (if you haven't seen his Samhain interview...get thee to YouTube...it's a master class in how to give an interview as a Pagan) and less on folks seeking attention to promote their ego.
Who, in your view, is the next Big Name Pagan? Who do YOU look to in our community for leadership? What ways can YOU think of to better promote the next generation of Pagan leadership?
Love and Lyte,